Roosevelt Collier is winding through the Tennessee mountains searching for steel. When I catch up with “The Doctor”, he’s on his way to try out some new guitars, and I ask him what he looks for when selecting instruments.
“Really, it’s all about tone. You look for tone, but for me, for weight as well,” he says, and then laughs. “‘Cause you know, them bad boys– they heavy!”
Roosevelt’s right of course– some pedal steel guitars can weigh over fifty pounds– but I think he may mean the heft of tradition as well. Like fellow slide progenitors Robert Randolph and AJ Ghent, Collier grew up in the House of God church where the Sacred Steel is a conduit for the soul. The Miami, Florida native learned to adapt while performing for the local congregation and also as a member of his family’s traveling outfit, The Lee Boys.
“Our church wasn’t like your regular church, you know? We had all types of things goin’ from funk to rock to soul and gospel and blues,” says Collier. “Because I’m able to listen very well, I’m able to fit into just about any scenario that there is on a dime and still have my own style that actually stands out.”
And that intuitive style has earned him a stellar reputation with the slide, landing Roosevelt in the studio and on the stage with a variety of artists including Sacred Steel admirers like the Tedeschi Trucks Band, rockers Living Color, bluegrassers the Del McCoury Band, and folk icon Ani Difranco.
“I’ve been so fortunate just to be able to adapt with my style o’ playin’,” says Collier. “Certain lyrics, certain stanzas may cause a certain feelin’ at that time. [Ani] has some amazing lyrics but just her voice! With me playin’ with singers, a lot o’ that feelin’ comes from their voice. Whatever they’re singin’ or feelin’, I try to mimic that at that moment in time. That tells me where I should play.”
In 2018, Roosevelt made the decision to step into the frontman’s spotlight with his debut solo effort Exit 16.
“I was blessed to be in touch with this guy named Michael League from Snarky Puppy,” remembers Collier. “He was like, ‘Rosie, let’s make your record.’ We talked and talked about it, and I was like. ‘This feels right. It doesn’t feel forced. We are gonna go with this.’ Before that, I had a lot o’ guys come and ask me, ‘Let’s do your first record,’ but it just didn’t feel right.”
Though pedal steel is often associated with other genres, particularly country music, Collier’s spent a lifetime exploring its applications, wielding it as a chimerical tonic regardless of where he finds his stool situated. Exit 16 is the culmination of that journey creating a signature of funky backbeats with psychedelic experimentation and splashes of soul, rock n’ roll, and 21st Century blues.
“Exit 16 is literally the exit that I’m from in South Miami,” says Collier. “This album was gonna identify me as Roosevelt the artist not just Roosevelt the gunslinger… That record was supposed to tell who I am, where I’m goin’, and where I’m from. I think I definitely accomplished what needed to be with my first record.”
On Friday, February 3rd, Roosevelt Collier and his band (bassist Harry Ong, drummer Bucky Buckingham, and keyboardist Tommy Shugart) land at Grant’s Lounge– and The Doctor isn’t just coming to practice.
“I can say one thing to you, man– there’s a lot more people comin’ to the shows lookin’ to be healed. They wanna let things go for that hour or two and just have fun and not think of the negative and just involve themselves in the moment,” says Collier. “My whole mission is to help touch and save lives through music.”